By Augustine Tan
HONG KONG - The Basic Law - Hong Kong's constitution - in Article 5 states
unambiguously: "The socialist system and policies shall not be practiced
in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist
system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years."
Ten years on, Hong Kong and the lifestyle of local residents may seem
unchanged. But living in this city, one can still feel changes over the past
decade, some tangible and some more intangible. And it is Hong Kong people
themselves who are largely responsible for such changes.
The tangible changes stem more from from economic setbacks over the decade than
any actions by the central government in Beijing. In themselves they have not
been ground-shaking, at least not for now.
It is the intangibles, almost invisible to non-Chinese residents and to
visitors, that are making a new Hong Kong. It is a more docile, less assertive
city. The innate sense of superiority over any and every Chinese mainlander has
almost completely evaporated; Ah Chaan, the name of a country bumpkin created
by television to represent the average mainlander has been scrubbed from
everyday language, if not from memory.
The Hongkonger is on the way to becoming a mainlander. And indeed, some Hong
Kong people feel humiliated nowadays when they travel across the border to
Shenzhen and find themselves being called "Kong Chaan" if they fail
to spend money generously.
The journey began mere hours after the midnight handover on July 1, 1997.
Certainly neither Beijing nor anyone in Hong Kong expected or wanted it to
begin so soon. In fact, some in this city never expected it to happen at all,
in this or the next lifetime.
It was the Asian financial crisis that broke out on July 2, 1997, with the
collapse of the Thai baht, followed by a string of more painfully and deadly
crises that knocked the aplomb and arrogance out of Hong Kong people.
In face of these woes - financial crisis, bird flu, SARS (severe acute respiratory
syndrome), an unprecedented 8% unemployment rate, negative equity - Hong Kong
people grabbed the soft options. Face, pride, a deep sense of superiority so
typically Hong Kong, were all flung aside as they went with begging bowl to
The central government of China, with little hesitation but a lot of knowing
nods, threw out one lifeline after another. It is still doing it, although with
the occasional reminder that these are all short-term remedies and Hong Kong
must resolve its fundamental contradictions.
But who cares? The good times are back and Hong Kong is swinging again. That is
what the foreign visitors and the resident expatriate see.
What they are also seeing are these tangibles:
· Half a million Hong Kong people, mainly middle-class,
tertiary-educated ones, are now working on the mainland. That's almost the same
number of moneyed middle-class professionals who fled to Canada, Australia and
the United States in the last few years of British rule.
· Their places in Hong Kong have been taken
over by an almost equal number of mainlanders, mainly poor, who have settled
here for good. Most at the lower economic end are women who have married Hong
Kong men. The yen for the less demanding mainland woman as wife or mistress is
not likely to die out soon, leaving behind an ever-growing army of single Hong
· Hong Kong is no longer the second-busiest
container port in Asia behind Singapore. Shanghai has superseded it and so will
Shenzhen soon; thus Hong Kong is assured of its continued slide.
· Before the handover from British to Chinese
rule in 1997, anyone in a local restaurant speaking Mandarin, the national
language, could expect to be drowned out by someone at the next table rudely
and deliberately bawling out a Cantonese song. Now
Mandarin is heard everywhere.
· Night after night, in restaurants and
nightclubs, the big spenders are mainlanders. Hong Kong people await their
tips. Hong Kong's own big spenders are throwing their money left and right - in
Beijing and Shanghai.
By allowing almost unrestricted investments either way, plus a whole wagonload
of preferential economic treats that have sent share prices soaring, to the
delight of Hong Kong, Beijing has unwittingly encouraged Hong Kong people to
put off their day of reckoning.
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen may even believe that the day of
reckoning will not come at all if Hong Kong is totally hitched to the global
rising star that is China.
That is what he did when he pronounced the death of "positive
non-intervention", which had taken Hong Kong to the pinnacle of the global
free market in previous decades, and meshed the city into China's Five-Year
Plan. There was little outcry over this, and what there was came mainly from
politicos and expatriate commentators. Hong Kong people, in the main, kept
their thinking to themselves.
They know, for certain, that the economy continues to balance unsteadily on a
rebounding real-estate market. There are not enough rich Hong Kong people to
keep this going. If this strikingly precarious feature of Hong Kong is to
continue in their lifetimes, there will have to be a greater infusion of
There was little rejoicing when Hong Kong's stock market surpassed New York's
in trading turnover to make it the world's largest financial market. Even if
trading at ever higher levels goes on every day from now on, it is at best
ephemeral; Shanghai is taking over.
Nothing underscored this more than the recent rise of the yuan, the mainland's
currency, now trading slightly higher than the Hong Kong dollar. Time had been
when Hong Kong people thought their dollar would eventually be the currency of
all China. Before the handover, many mainlanders gave credence to this belief
by hoarding the Hong Kong dollar.
The day the Hong Kong dollar fell below the yuan, an elderly man just back from
Shenzhen ran screaming out of the Sai Wan Ho subway station: "No one in
Shenzhen is accepting the Hong Kong dollar! The Hong Kong dollar is going to be
like the Japanese yen after the war!"
Just weeks before that, when Chinese television showed how mainland tourists
had been cheated by Hong Kong jewelers, the heads of the tourist industry
caught the first plane to Beijing to promise remedial action. Arrests,
punishments and restitution quickly followed.
That was hardly surprising. One of the biggest favors that Beijing has bestowed
on Hong Kong since the handover was its lifting of regulations that limited
visitors to large tour groups and allowing individuals to visit, and spend in,
In the past the tourist chiefs would simply have stood firm in Hong Kong and
rebutted such allegations - even though everyone in town knew that "Ah
Chaan" was there to be humbugged. And, indeed, he was humbugged, day after
It is not an entirely one-way street. Beijing, too, has learned to put up with
some of Hong Kong idiosyncrasies like the annual vigils marking the June 4,
1989, Tiananmen massacre and the now-annual July 1 pro-democracy marches. It
makes less noise about such demonstrations because it has learned how effective
its "lessons in patriotism" have been.
These lessons have included airing the national anthem several times a day,
sending ever larger numbers of students to various parts of China for holiday
camps, providing more university places for Hong Kong students on the mainland,
and many, many other temptations.
Such activities may be paying off. A study by Hong Kong University showed that
for the first time since the handover 10 years ago, a majority of secondary
students consider themselves "Chinese" rather than
When the Legislative Council elections come around again next year, there is a
good chance that Hong Kong people will send an even stronger message to
Beijing: we know which side of our bread is buttered.
While Beijing pampers Hong Kong and Hong Kong people temper their resistance to
mainland rule, badly needed reforms and restructuring of the economy have been
quietly laid aside.
This neglect will come back to haunt Hong Kong. And when the second decade
under Chinese rule comes to be celebrated, Hong Kong people may have so much to
thank Beijing for that they might even consider tearing up the Basic Law.
Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd.
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